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Implications of Digital Technologies for the World of Work

- Sandiswa Mapukata

The COVID pandemic has accelerated the use of digital technologies within the world of work.

Amidst rising unemployment, the gig economy promises to provides much-needed employment. The geography of digital technology development is an Part of that also speaks to the universal accessibility of digital technologies within particular neighbourhoods, countries, and regions. The data from ICT Africa point to a digital divide between and within countries. It is important to note the role that the digital divide plays in limiting access to digital technologies. The digital divide consists of three stages, which include the economic divide, the usability divide, and the empowerment divide. The data from the Research ICT-Africa 2017/18 Access Survey demonstrate that these three stages coexist and operate simultaneously. The reasons for the digital divide are structural and cannot be addressed by merely distributing tablets, having free WiFi hotspots in public places, or encouraging the use of zero-data apps. The digital divide is not a micro problem. The digital divide is a social problem that provides a salient illustration of the structural nature of inequality. 

It is also important to recognise the limitations of gig work in addressing inequality. By classifying workers as self-employed independent contractors, this continues the ongoing trend of labour flexibilisation. Given the monopolisation of platform economies by Big Tech companies and the continuing rolling back of social protections, gig workers are increasingly vulnerable to insecurity and deepening levels of inequality. However, digital technologies do provide opportunities for workers to connect with each other, which could potentially increase their workplace bargaining power. Because of the unique nature of work within the gig economy, hybrid forms of work organisation have emerged. These forms blur the distinction between traditional trade unionism, informal trade workers’ associations and cooperatives. This process will be determined by workers’ agency as well as diverse contextual factors. The increasing use of digital technologies within the world of work presents new opportunities and challenges for workers. It is important that key stakeholders ensure that the further development and use of these technologies play a role in empowering all workers in our current and future economies.  

Read the related Business Day Op-Ed

This is the last of three blog posts that will examine the relationship between digital technologies and work. Read the first and second posts here.